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Would An Independent Commission Fix Florida's Map Problems?

There are murmurs around the Capitol in support of a independent redistricting commission.  Would it fix reapportionment?
David July via Flickr

The bitter fight over Florida’s political boundaries has brought some legislative leaders to the conclusion the state needs a new system for drawing maps.  But the independent commission that many on the left have spent years clamoring for isn’t a silver bullet.

This year has brought out the worst in Florida’s lawmakers.  First a spat over Medicaid expansion brought the regular session to an abrupt and premature end.  Then jockeying for power between the chambers and within the Senate kept them from agreeing on a set of congressional maps.  Weeks later it was the same story for Senate borders.  Speaking from the floor after that effort fell apart, Senate President Andy Gardiner reiterated his opposition to putting mapmaking in the hands of an independent body.

“Well I’ll give you my opinion, certainly an independent commission would not be the preference,” he said.

Gardiner believes the problem isn’t partisan intent.  It’s the impossibility of lawmakers proving they aren’t motivated by it. 

He’s got a point. 

Gardiner and many other Republicans says the state’s anti-gerrymandering provisions make it nearly impossible for lawmakers to propose revisions in their home districts.  But some in the Legislature say an independent commission is just what Florida needs.

“You know I never had any anticipation of this bill getting a hearing in any way shape of form,” Rep. Evan Jenne (D-Hollywood) says.

He’s filed a bill again this year to establish an independent redistricting commission.  But his plan doesn’t completely cut the Legislature out.

“It is literally impossible for the political world and the redistricting world not to touch in some way shape or form,” Jenne says.  “The key is to limit that contact as much as humanly possible.”

“Given the way fair districts is written our constitution says that the Legislature has some say in this,” he goes on.  “So automatically there’s going to be 160 people with some significant political ideas in mind when it comes to these maps.”

Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) has filed a similar bill in the Senate, but because they’re both Democrats the proposals are a bit of a long shot. 

The underlying idea, though, may be gaining traction among some powerful members of the GOP.  The Miami Herald reports incoming House Speaker—and former redistricting chair—Richard Corcoran is open to the idea.  And Miami Rep. Jose Oliva (R-Miami), the current redistricting chair, is willing to give it a hearing as well. 

But Oliva’s skeptical the commission can get around partisanship.

“With the idea of trying to get an impartial body you’re always going to have a tremendous challenge of where do you find impartial people,” he says.  “Have we truly met people who are one hundred percent impartial?  I don’t think we have.”

Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford University, draws a similar conclusion.

“Getting rid of the self-interest perception that many people have about what incumbents do when they draw their lines—that is for many people a reassuring thing,” Cain says. 

“So you can do some good there, but you’re still going to have problems with respect to partisanship,” he says, “and a state like Florida which is competitive, it’s hard for me to believe that that won’t be a problem in the design.”

Cain says Iowa has done well with its independent commission, but it’s also a much more homogenous state than Florida.  Also, just because the system works one decade that doesn’t mean it will keep working.  Cain says Arizona’s first round with mapmaking commission went great.

“But then ten years later as the partisanship grew in this country and as the parties figured out how to game the process, the Arizona experiment really went sour.” Cain explains.  “And they’re in constant litigation, lots of accusations across party lines about who did what and what their motivations were.”

Sound familiar? 

Even if Jenne or Clemens were to pass their bills, lawmakers would have a hand in selecting the committee and approving the committee’s work.  It’s a smaller role than the Legislature has now, but it doesn’t eliminate the potential for politically motivated decisions.  

Currently Florida’s Supreme Court is deliberating over the state’s congressional maps, and the Leon County Circuit Court is slated to hear arguments about the Senate map in mid-December.  

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.